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Christopher Wool
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essay Christopher Wool, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Although Christopher Wool abandoned painting in 1978—briefly studying film at New York University—he returned to it in 1981 with a renewed engagement in picture-making as a process. Affected at once by European art, including Yves Klein’s Anthropometries and the surly abstractions of Arnulf Rainer as well as post-Minimalist American landmarks such as Richard Serra’s splashed molten-lead works, Wool fabricated a new lexicon of “all over” painting.

Wool designated two bodies of work known as the “silver” and “drip” paintings (1984–1986) as acts of covering a surface—in his case, slablike rectangles of sheet aluminum backed by wood. Their abused and weathered appearance—pitted, etched, graffitied, scarred—gives them the demeanor of squatted and marked territories. By rejecting any colors other than black and white, he began to treat painting more like wayward printmaking, as the work resembled vast fouled-up intaglio plates or lithographic stones splashed with acid. In 1986, the artist began to employ actual printing techniques, using rubber rollers to create floral or ornamental patterns that look like botched and moldering wallpaper. However, it is his “word paintings,” begun a year later, for which he has become best known. These elaborate the dispossessed language of his mark-making—though they’re arguably no less “abstract”—as awkward letters are crammed into the space, disconcertingly breaking across lines or omitting letters. Some words, such as FEAR, AMOK, RIOT, are blunt iterations that evoke turbulent mental states or a claustrophobic sense of degradation, while others, SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS, draw on popular culture (such as this line from the 1979 film Apocalypse Now) or slang expressions and insults.

Drunk II came into the Walker Art Center’s collection as a gift from artist Robert Gober, with whom Wool has produced collaborative exhibitions on several occasions. At 303 Gallery, New York, in 1988, Wool showed his Apocalypse Now painting together with three of Gober’s uncanny urinal sculptures. Amplifying this disquieting juxtaposition was a co-authored, modestly proportioned black-and-white photograph: an image of a demure white dress hanging from the branches of a tree in a clearing of an anonymous woodland. Printed with a repeating pattern of black leaves that Wool had deployed on his roller paintings, the decorated garment almost looked like it had been viciously slashed. A tall mirror mounted on the wall and a short story by writer Gary Indiana completed this suffocating parcours of works. The two colleagues worked together once more at Documenta 9, in 1992, with Gober designing forest wallpaper against which Wool’s paintings were displayed.

Drunk II was first exhibited in Strange Abstraction in 1991—an exhibition that featured, in addition to Gober and Wool, two other artists with whom Wool has a deep affinity, Philip Taaffe and Cady Noland.1 Redolent of the slurred obnoxious bark of a veteran drinker, the hiccupping expression of the work pays dismal homage to a condition of intoxication familiar to painters throughout history, not least as part of the armory of another artist who emerged in the 1980s to engage with the latest declared demise of painting, the German Martin Kippenberger.

  1. The exhibition Strange Abstraction, curated by Jeffrey Deitch, was presented at the Touko Museum of Contemporary Art, Japan, in 1991.

Andrews, Max. “Christopher Wool.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center